This portrait of my grandfather, James W. Shockley, is one of the images I hold most dear from my personal project about the American West. I made this photograph a number of years ago in my grandfather’s workshop, outside of Farmington. The place remains almost unchanged since my youth, and is such a central part of my early childhood memories that the visuals alone play on each of my other senses.
Particularly the hot, dry dust—move anything and it is there. Following a summer rainstorm across the high desert, it changes into something sweeter—breathe it in deep.
The large sheet-metal door slides to the right with resistance, breaking the silence of the land. The smell of sage and juniper rises from the desert, a reminder of recent rain. The horizon looking north toward Colorado and the La Plata Mountains retains its blue-gray demeanor. Late-afternoon sun shines brightly upon my grandfather’s Stetson, a light straw affair, not nearly as dilapidated as the one I last saw him wearing. As he steps into the shadows of the workshop, he pushes the hat back on his forehead, revealing wisps of thinning gray hair above his weathered ears. Pearl snaps catch window light on a cuff of thin flannel material, signature western wear.
Shelves climb to the ceiling on either side of us. He reaches for a few stones, newly cut and polished, and spits on his thumb to better wipe the dust away, revealing shimmering quartz surfaces that he holds between two worn fingers. His pinkie is missing, lost years ago in a car wreck while serving in the military. Filtered light catches the reflection of the smooth rock. The dust stirred by our presence stands in the air like a heavy beam caught in the sunlight. Tires and tools are stacked over and under decaying boxes of oily cardboard. The air smells of grease. A large industrial metal lathe sits to my left; I focus my eyes on the rusting thermostat, which once advertised Dr Pepper. Nearby, an old Coke bottle sits on its side amid other windowsill clutter. Grandpa is searching for something.
“See if you can pull down that box,” he demands, pointing a crooked finger above my head. It’s full of wooden containers, dated by their thick lacquer finish. He hands me one, a keepsake.
He pulls an old stool from somewhere, collecting his thoughts as he exhales. I take a few photos, realizing how out of place the Nikon seems in this antiquated reality. A workshop filled with tools, equipment, and possibility. Dated. I feel a deep sadness for my grandfather, his way of life on the brink of disappearance.
I let the camera rest as the old man shuffles outside. “Well,” he sighs, “we best be getting on. Dinner’ll be ready ’fore you know it. Give me a hand with this door.” ✜